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May 12, 2009

Message about your neighborhood from Mayor Bill White

Super Neighborhood #22 Residents,

There has been a well-orchestrated publicity campaign by a fine local business concerning the enforcement of City laws forbidding businesses which sell 50% or more alcoholic beverages from locating close to schools.  These ordinances are designed to protect neighborhoods and schools.  State laws strictly limit the abilities of cities to regulate bars and liquor stores.

A fine local business, Spec's Liquor got a permit to operate a store that was less than 700 feet from a school so long as less than 50% of the value of sales is from alcoholic beverages.  Spec's engages in this and other activities.  Spec's engaged a professional firm, the Gerald Franklin Agency, whose business consists of complying with local and state alcoholic beverage permitting requirements.  The rules associated with the sale of alcohol within 1,000 feet of schools are well known throughout the industry, particularly by permitting experts. 

Spec's has multiple locations, and I know as a customer that they sell a variety of products.  At this location on Washington Avenue, apparently Spec's has chosen not to devote enough shelf space to products or non-alcoholic beverages to comply with the "less than 50%" exception to the City's ordinances.  Instead, it seeks an action by the City Council to grant them some variance from our existing ordinance.

The Administration would support variances when there is a clear consensus among the residential neighbors in favor of a variance.  At least in my Administration, I cannot recall any cases where neighborhoods have wanted variances from these ordinance requirements.

I and this Administration are very sympathetic to the impacts of regulatory decisions on small business.  Reading some of the letters generated by the situation over Spec's led me to probe very carefully whether somehow the City would lead somebody to believe they complied with City law in building and operating a store which sells over 50% alcoholic beverages so close to a school.

I have no doubt that the ownership and management of Spec's may feel frustrated if they were advised by members of staff or professionals working for them that they could be permitted to build a store with one product mix - less than 50% alcohol sales - and then open it and operate with a far different product mix.

If the Super Neighborhood 22 and the civic clubs immediately adjacent to the store build a consensus that there should be a variance, then that should be communicated by those organizations.

But I do ask for citizens in these neighborhoods to follow this discussion closely because there is an important issue that affects residents all along the Washington Corridor and other parts of the City.  If businesses can be given permits as restaurants and then operate as bars, or businesses can sell alcohol as "less than 50%" as part of their overall food and beverages operations, and then change their business operations after receiving the permit, and claim hardship if they did not comply with the terms of the permit, then it is hard to determine where to draw the line.

If, on the other hand, we base our actions on any variance on the sentiment of the neighborhood itself, rather than some claim of hardship by the owner, then we could both protect neighbors with general rules and allow exceptions for those businesses which are consistent with the neighborhood character as expressed by civic clubs and the Super Neighborhood Council.